Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; The Oceanides
It’s instructive comparing Mark Elder’s Sibelius with John Barbirolli’s celebrated Hallé recordings, among the first I ever heard. Barbirolli made that atmospheric tone-poem Pohjola’s Daughter sound relatively smooth and homogenised, almost Tchaikovskian; under Elder it’s a primal folktale rather than an urbane fantasy, open brass and woodwind textures, accentuated by spacious recording, giving it an underlay of rocky strength that opens out beautifully into the airy vision of the cold-hearted Maid of the North at her rainbow spinning wheel. In The Oceanides, the glittering sea itself, like the forest in Tapiola, gradually reveals a forbidding, non-human identity with a growing underswell of power, which Elder develops with unhurried ease.
Symphony No. 2, recorded live here, became immensely popular when seen as a stirring nationalist hymn, but was in fact written during a traumatic holiday in Italy. However, its musical structure remains open and fresh, the entire robust first movement evolved out of a three-note motif. Elder catches the manic energy of the second movement’s plucked-string and woodwind opening, and the paradoxically jittery melancholy of the Scherzo, without exaggeration. But he also rises strongly into the swaying strings and brass fanfares of the last, undercut by the warm woodwind theme apparently commemorating Sibelius’s sister-in-law. Elder’s elemental strength, relieved by a sense of light and space and the Hallé’s intense playing, help to make this highly recommendable.
Michael Scott Rohan